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From Kiev to Bad Arolsen

This week Wadim, Sergej and Valentina Martens traveled 1725 km from Kiev, Ukraine to Bad Arolsen, Germany. They made the trip for one reason: to personally thank the International Tracing Service (ITS) staff for reuniting their family with relatives in Australia. “A letter or postcard would not have been sufficient,” said Sergej Martens. “We simply had to come here for our hearts and souls.”

All that was left of Wadim Martens´s brother Willi was a photograph and postcard dated 28 May 1944, along with a 7 year-old child´s vague memories of a place near Gera, a Christmas festival, a trip to the cinema and German children´s songs. The entire Martens family left for Germany in 1943 as the Wehrmacht retreated from the Ukraine. They hardly had any other choice; grandfather Karl Martin from Germany immigrated to the Ukraine in the 19th century. The Nazis considered the Martens family to be ethnic Germans living abroad, while the Red Army viewed them as traitors. They were threatened with being sent to a work camp in Siberia.

The father of the family was sentenced to hard labor in Germany, where he was forced to work at the REIMAHG aircraft factory´s construction camp in Kahla, Thuringia. The Nazis listed him as a Russian forced labourer. Willi, the eldest son, joined the army. “Volunteer for the Wehrmacht rather than wait to be drafted. That way you can escape the SS,” advised his father. His parents and the other four children managed to survive the war unscathed. “I can still remember how we always ran into the nearby forest during air raids,” said Wadim.

The US Army arrived, but at the beginning of July 1945 the Red Army took over command in Thuringia. The family could not remain in the Soviet Zone. They decided to return to familiar surroundings in the Ukraine and keep mum on their stay in Germany, which proved to be difficult. An uncle was shot and another was deported to a work camp. Wadim, his siblings and their parents were lucky. “I will never forget how we made our way back to the Ukraine,” said the 73-year-old.

For years the family was always on the move so no one could find out that they had been in Germany. “We were afraid. My father made us swear never to talk about it,” said Wadim. The 9-year-old could not attend school for over a year as classmates immediately taunted him for being “German”. “We would move as soon as anyone started asking questions,” remembers Wadim. The family first aired its secret 15 years ago. During a walk in the woods memories of their long trek to the Ukraine surfaced. He told his wife about his German ancestry and the conflict between the fronts during the Second World War.

“We had always assumed that my eldest brother died in the war,” said Wadim. However, the Ukrainian was not willing to give up hope. Encouraged by success stories of reunited families, they inquired at the Red Cross in Kiev in 1998, which in turn forwarded their request to the ITS in Bad Arolsen. A compensation claim for former forced labourers filed by Willi at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Geneva in 2001 ultimately proved to be the solution. After inquiring at the IOM, the ITS discovered the Martens family´s address in Australia.

The eagerly awaited meeting finally took place in September 2007. Sadly, Willi did not live to witness the occasion. “Nothing would have made him happier,” wrote his daughter Masha. Four children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren survive him. Nevertheless, Wadim was able to meet the Australian branch of the family. “There were a lot of tears – tears of sadness and joy,” he reported. “We have learned so much about their lives.”

Willi also survived the war. He was in a prison camp and then in a displaced persons (DP) camp in Austria. On 24 August 1950 he emigrated to Australia with his wife, who he had met in the DP camp, and their three-year-old child. For decades he had tried unsuccessfully to find out what had happened to the other Martens, but the cold war blocked his attempts. Willi´s family even flew to Ukraine but could not find help. “My brother always had a photo of me and my sister on the wall,” said Wadim.

His son Sergej is also happy about their new family members. Things have come full circle for the family with the trip to Bad Arolsen. “With our deep appreciation and everlasting gratefulness we bow our heads to your work,” Sergej wrote in the ITS guest book. “Your professionalism and human instincts have helped to reunite us with our relatives.”